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Inquiry on MCAS, Disabled Students

State education officials are investigating whether educational programs around the region let hundreds of the most severely disabled students skip the MCAS test last year.

Education Commissioner David P. Driscoll launched an inquiry after the state discovered it did not receive test records for 1,427 of the 5,433 students enrolled in private programs and collaboratives set up by multiple school systems to educate disabled students.

Missing a quarter of students' records from the 2003 Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System is too substantial a difference to be an accident, Driscoll said. But he said he is not discounting other possible reasons, including the programs' failure to send in test booklets, incorrect enrollment data kept by the state, or students who left the programs.

''In my own opinion, I don't think it's all explained away as enrollment issues. I just think there are too many" missing records, Driscoll said. ''If it's widespread and people are just ignoring their responsibility, then we're going to have to take action. But I don't want to get ahead of myself. It's an ongoing investigation."

Directors of the programs acknowledge that they are concerned about the impact of the high-stakes test on special-education students, but maintain they have administered it nonetheless. They question the accuracy of the state's figures on test records and student enrollment.

''It saddens me that they would jump to that conclusion with schools that are working with the most fragile of kids," said Robert Gass, executive director of the North Shore Education Consortium. ''While people have disagreed with the policy and some have been fairly outspoken, myself included, the law is the law."

Federal law requires almost all special-education students to take state tests. About 550,000 Massachusetts public school students annually take the MCAS in grades 3-8 and 10. Since 2003, high-schoolers have had to pass the exam to get their high school diploma.

But the 1,400 students Driscoll has concerns about are in grades 3-10; graduating is not yet an issue since students can retake the test until they pass.

If officials find that programs deliberately did not test the students, they might lose their state approval, Driscoll said. Students in grades 3-8 probably will not have to make up the exam, he said.

This is the first year the state has checked the MCAS records of the schools, Driscoll said. The programs and collaboratives accept students with a wide range of emotional, physical, or mental disabilities and who cannot get appropriate programs in their home schools. More than 250 of the 1,400 without test records attend school out of state, but still must take the MCAS.

Last month, in a memo in which he cited the missing records, Driscoll ordered steps to tighten test administration for the private special-education schools and the public collaboratives.

The state has not found discrepancies with special-education students tested in their home school systems.

Gass said he thinks logistical problems caused most of the gap at the North Shore consortium, which is missing records for 34 of 123 students, according to the state's preliminary figures.

The consortium, for example, draws 260 students from 30 school systems, which can lead to record-keeping mix-ups, he said. In addition, students could have missed the MCAS test for legitimate reasons -- surgery, psychiatric stays, imprisonment -- and not because schools refused to administer it, Gass said.

At the Landmark School in Prides Crossing, a private school for students with language-based disabilities such as dyslexia, the state does not have test booklets for 19 of 101 students. Except for two students who moved back to their home school system, the school ''without a doubt" tested everyone, said president and headmaster Robert Broudo.

''When it came down a bunch of years ago that approved schools needed to give the MCAS, this school kicked into high gear in how to organize that," he said. ''We've had to account for all this."

Broudo noted that seven of his students did not have state-issued identification numbers, which could have caused the discrepancy. Driscoll agreed that might be a problem for the programs, but said he doubted it accounted for all 1,400 missing records.

Most special-education students take the paper-and-pencil test that their regular-education peers take. Some get accommodations, such as having the test read to them or taking a large-print version. If they have severe disabilities, they can submit portfolios of their work.

Students in private programs or collaboratives have their MCAS scores reported as part of their hometown's overall results.

Some superintendents have complained that including the scores lowers their community's results, according to Driscoll. Driscoll suggests that school systems report MCAS passing scores to parents in two forms, one with the students in private programs or collaboratives and one without.

School systems and the private programs split responsibility for MCAS testing. The students' scores are reported as part of the individual school systems' results, but the programs actually give the test and mail them to be scored.

When William H. Lupini was superintendent of schools in Beverly, his staff closely monitored the students in private programs and made sure they had the right tests.

''I would have known" if any student wasn't tested, said Lupini, who became Brookline's superintendent last month.

He said he thought it was highly unlikely that schools would simply ignore the MCAS test, which has existed since 1998.

Testing of severely disabled students has divided special-education advocates. Some say it is unfair to test them on material that they might not be getting, because it is not in their individual education plans.

Others say it is important to treat special-education students equally, and that includes testing, even with accommodations.

States have taken different approaches. Seven states that require students to pass a test to get a diploma exempt special-education students from that rule.

Suzanne Peyton, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of Special Education Parent Advisory Councils, said she doubts that schools flouted the MCAS requirement for 1,400 students.

''It's possible that for one or two kids, some school administrator got extremely creative, and someone got them off the hook. But for that number? I don't think so," Peyton said. ''Something went wrong, clearly.

''But with all the information hitting" the Department of Education, she said, ''I'd have to say the problem is more likely at their end, rather than the sending schools."

If the probe uncovers state mistakes, Driscoll said, he will be ''the first to issue an apology." The state will finish its inquiry in a few weeks, he said.

''I'd be very happy to correct our data," Driscoll said. ''If, on the other hand, there are some issues, we're going to have to deal with them."

— Anand Vaishnav



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